What I’m Reading: How To Be Alone


I haven’t thought much about Jonathan Franzen since I read Freedom in 2010.  I remember where I was when I devoured most of it — at an indoor water park with my sister and nieces.  They were having fun going down water slides on inner tubes along with the other families with kids and I was having fun while I reclined on a pool chair completely immersed in the lives of The Berglunds…except when I was checking out people in their bathing suits.  I’m fascinated by real people’s bodies — you know, the bodies you don’t see on TV or in movies?  The ones that have cellulite with flesh that droops and moves?  No six pack abs at Great Wolf Lodge that I can remember.

Bodies in bathing suits and Franzen are married in my memory.

Recently, I stumbled across a review of his latest book, The Kraus Project, in the newspaper.  I went online to find out more about it and discovered a very long article he wrote on Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus’ criticisms of media and how relevant they are over 70 years later called “What’s Wrong with the Modern World”.  This paragraph really stuck out and not in a good way:

Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hanover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin, where I was living on a Fulbright grant, and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus.

My first response after reading this passage was to be grossed out while imagining Franzen trying to have sex with some girl. Then I was repulsed by how angry and petty he was.  Then I admired him slightly for having the balls to include this anecdote in his essay, even though it made him look like a prick.  Then I just simply admired him because the story lingered.  It was raw, vivid, and well-written.

jonathan-franzenFranzen said in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2011 “there is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of…but there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.” This is exactly how I feel about Franzen. He’s not a likable writer and I don’t think he tries to be (obviously), but, who cares?  I love his ideas and his writing.  I even love the parts I don’t like.

I wasn’t going to read The Kraus Project (I don’t love Franzen that much; love has its limits.  The book is a translation of Kraus’ screeds) so I looked for something else Franzen wrote that I could fall in love with and I chose a collection of essays he released 12 years ago called How To Be Alone.

There’s a lot to love in this book:

My Father’s Brain is a very personal and informative story about how Franzen and his family dealt with his father’s Alzheimer’s disease.  I learned more about Alzheimer’s from this story than from any other source.

In Imperial Bedroom, Franzen argues that individuals aren’t increasingly losing their privacy as we so often hear.  We have so much privacy we’re becoming isolated.  What we’re losing are public spaces where private matters don’t intrude:

The need to put on a public face is as basic as the need for privacy in which to take it off. We need both a home that’s not like a public space and a public space that’s not like a home.

He writes about the almost obsolete and broken US Postal Service; the allure of cities that “provide what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely the strange” (Paul Tillich); how books on sex and sex scenes in books are very unsexy; and the prison industry.  In Sifting The Ashes, Franzen actually attempts to defend the tobacco industry: “some part of me insists on rooting for tobacco”.  So convinced was I by Franzen’s argument that I almost was rooting for the tobacco industry by the end of that essay.  If you thought he was a prick during the whole Oprah fiasco, reading Meet Me In St.Louis will change your mind.

The main theme of the book is about the death of the novel, the loss of an audience for fiction to technology, and the importance of reading and books in life.  He writes in Why Bother?

Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence:  in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.

In The Reader in Exile, Franzen writes that “absorption in a novel is closer to a state of meditation”.  I haven’t read a novel in months and I miss the absorption he writes about. Increasingly though, I and most other people are finding comfort in technology’s effortlessness, ease, and promotion of passivity or “we have agreed to let technology take care of us”.  The novel can’t compete with that and it makes Franzen sad and depressed.  The cure?  Writing fiction. As Don DeLillo advised him in a letter: “write…to save (yourself), to survive as (an individual)”.

I spent most of the day reading How to Be Alone and I didn’t feel alone while doing it.  “The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.”  True.  Read anything by Franzen if you want a lesson on how to be a better writer.



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